Barging on the Erie Canal
Luigi, Shaw, Dodge, and Manly, 1987

My wife, Luigi, our eighteen-year-old son Dodge and I drove from Rochester, New York, ten or fifteen miles east to Fairport where we located the barge we had chartered to ride on the Erie Canal. The vessel was 40 feet long, 10 feet wide, with a black straight-sided steel hull, white superstructure and a grey roof and deck. "Mid-Lakes Navigation Company" was stencilled on the sides and "SKANEATELES" on the stern.

The Skaneateles is the first of a fleet of barges being built by Mid-Lakes along the lines of the narrowboats that are so popular among British and others on the canals of Great Britain; Mid-Lakes is the first company to enter the recreational charter-barge business on the Erie Canal, and we were their first charter party. Having enjoyed life on a catered barge in the Champagne region of France and on a narrowboat that we ran ourselves in the Midlands of England, we looked forward to spending a week on the most historic canal in the United States. Now little used by commercial traffic, in the 19th century before the days of the railroad, the Erie Canal provided cheap waterborne transportation from the Hudson River near Albany to Buffalo on Lake Erie, enabling the settlement of the northern part of the United States west of the Alleghenies. Because of its important role many villages sprang up along the canal's borders; they are still there, with grocery stores, restaurants and laundromats that travelers can use. The chief users of the canal now are individuals -- those who own boats and live along the canal and those who are moving yachts between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

We met Captain Peter Wiles, the paterfamilias of the Mid-Lakes Corporation. He is a heavy set man of about 60 with a moplike head of yellow hair and is an expert on the Erie Canal. He is known personally to most of the lock-keepers and lift-bridge tenders and is responsible for a large cruise vessel, the Emita II that takes people on daily excursions; Captain Wiles and his daughter Libby Wing showed us how to operate the barge and where all the items of equipment were.

Before the end of the instruction Luigi went to the local supermarket for provisions, and Dodge and I drove to Lock 33, about eight miles distant, to collect our daughter Shaw and her friend Nick. They had driven down from Worcester where they were attending Clark University, and they had been waiting for a couple of hours for us to turn up with the barge. I had expected to get underway in time to reach Lock 33 about the time they arrived, but various delays, including lunch, prevented this.

It was pointed out that if Shaw's car were to accompany us on the journey, it would be necessary to leave it ashore somewhere and then take it to wherever the barge would tie up each night unless someone were to drive the car from point to point and not ride on the barge. This problem was solved by buying a used bicycle for $45 which we kept on the barge roof. Shaw or Nick would ride it from the barge to wherever the car was parked, and then put it in the back seat and drive back to the barge.

About 5:00 we got underway, with Captain Wiles making sure that Dodge, at least, could operate the barge. Our agreement called for his taking us through at least one lock so that both he and we would feel comfortable about our operating the vessel without him. However, when we reached Lock 32, we found it closed. Lock 32 operates as one of a pair with Lock 33, which was not working because, as Captain Wiles explained it, the good old chains that had operated the valves were replaced with newfangled cables that stretch and so a valve gate had run beyond the end of the track and fell off, bending the guide rails. It was necessary to draw down the level of the water between the two locks so that the lost valve gate could be found and repairs could proceed. We went back a couple of miles to Pittsford where we tied up at a canalside park and Captain Wiles left us to see us on the morrow for a trip through the lock.

We were tied up near a bridge which led us across the canal to a small business district. By the time we were ready for dinner it was about 9:45 and the cheapest of the three restaurants (the Coal Station which was built in a former coal storage tower) was closed. Another restaurant, the Mucky Duck, was open and proved to be quite good, specializing in Italian food. The bill for the five of us, including wine and dessert was about $80.

On our return to the barge we found that it had been cast adrift and was floating in the middle of the canal. The Pittsford police found it about the same time, and summoned the fire department with much siren blowing and roaring of truck engines. There was a little current in the canal and the barge moved slowly toward the shore we were on, but did not come close enough to be boarded from the bank. The firemen produced a rubber raft and one of them boarded the barge and caught a line from shore. Then the vessel was pulled close enough so that Dodge could leap on; he started the engine and brought the barge back to the embankment where it was tied up again. At the suggestion of one of the firemen, the next morning Shaw drove me to a nearby building supply store and we bought 16 feet of stout chain and two keyed-alike padlocks.

Captain Wiles turned up between ten and eleven o'clock Sunday morning, and we proceeded through Lock 32 to his satisfaction. Thereupon he turned the vessel over to us and accepted the remainder of the charter fee less the cost of the chain and padlocks.

Sunday took us around the City of Rochester, starting in the northeast and going southwest for several miles and then northwest, passing some commercial areas, a lot of residential areas and an occasional superhighway. Three of the bridges we went under were very graceful concrete spans designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Most of the other bridges were steel and in varying states of repair. Along the towpath, which is a state or national park for most of the length of the canal, we found several joggers and bicyclists and some walkers, most of whom waved at us. Also, near where an old railroad bridge led to a factory building, a group of youths hollered various epithets at us and one even dropped his pants and mooned us.

One feature of the Erie Canal I had not realized is that it crosses the Genesee River, so a person could take a boat from one to the other. The crossing is between two of the Olmstead bridges and makes an unusual spectacle. They drain the canal each winter, and use large guard gates that block the water from the river so that it won't flow into the canal. The canal is filled each spring with water from Lake Erie and from the Genesee River.

Sunday night we spent tied up at Elmgrove Road near Spencerport. Shaw and Dodge went off in Shaw's car in search of the evening meal and came back with a hamburger from McDonalds for Dodge and a large pizza from Pizza Hut for the rest of us. The local Genesee 12 Horse Ale proved a good accompaniment to the meal. We learned later that other products from the Genesee Brewing Company are much like other commercial beers, but the 12 Horse Ale has some taste.

Monday morning, after everyone had taken a shower and while the dishes were being washed, the water stopped running. We got underway and soon reached the Adams Basin Marina where the tank was filled with water, but still none came out of the faucet and the water pump didn't turn on. Dodge, Nick and Luigi eventually discovered that the fuse for the water pump had blown and located and installed a spare fuse.

We tied up for lunch just east of the Adams Basin lift bridge. When we were finished we could not find the bridge tender to raise the bridge for us. I had a list of the telephone numbers of the various lift bridges, and Luigi and I went to look for a telephone. As we were a couple of hundred yards from the lift bridge, on the far side of the canal from the barge, we heard the bell ringing and saw the bridge going up for another vessel. We walked quickly to the bridge tower and found the tender, who said he had been expecting our barge but had lost track of it and had to tend another bridge elsewhere. He offered to let us through now, so we quickly went back to the Skaneateles, untied promptly and soon were proceeding under the bridge. We learned that the bridge tenders note the vessels on the Erie Canal, and by telephone keep each other aware of the traffic. Thus each tender has a pretty good idea of when any vessel will reach his bridge, unless, of course, the operator ties up for lunch somewhere without telling anyone.

The area West of Pittsford is largely rural with occasional villages. The canal is lined on both sides with trees and shrubs and wild flowers. We saw hundreds of blooming black locust trees, their scent sometimes almost sickly sweet. There were almost as many cottonwood trees and they were in full cotton production so that it sometimes looked like a light snow flurry. Trying to remove the cotton from the brown carpets on the barge was a vain task indeed. Other trees included many sumacs, a few young elms that have not yet been plagued by the Dutch Elm disease, lindens and many willows, some quite cheerful and others weeping despondently. Among the blooming shrubs, honeysuckle and elderberry were the most noticeable, and there were also pink wild roses and a couple of others I didn't recognize. Vines covered the rocks that bordered the canal in many areas: mostly wild grape but some Virginia creeper and poison ivy. Wild flowers included buttercups, daisies, white and purple clover and yellow sweet clover, white and purple wild phlox yellow and purple wild flags (some of which may have been escaped domestic iris) and thousands of yellow flowers that might have been trefoils or bladderworts.

Monday evening we tied up at Brockport, a pleasant and prosperous looking village with two movie theaters, a large bookstore, a laundromat and an ice cream store. A few of us had ice cream cones Monday afternoon as we walked about on Main Street. Shaw, Nick and Dodge went to one of the movie theaters after we had a pleasant meal at the Brockport Diner, a family restaurant at the corner with the traffic light. On the way to the restaurant was a dumpster in an alley where I dumped our accumulated garbage.

Tuesday morning we got started even later than usual, as I first went to a laundromat and did my laundry and then went to a bank to cash some travellers' checks and to a liquor store for a bottle of wine. As Luigi described the canaling routine, you start at ten o'clock and knock off at four and take a couple of hours off for lunch. If you are in a hurry, take an airplane.

Tuesday evening we passed under the two lift bridges in Albion and tied up just east of the second bridge. Both bridges are tended by the same man, and he drives from one to the other. If you are lucky he is at the bridge you reach first; otherwise it may take some time for him to learn that you are there. This problem can be aggravated when one bridge tender is unable to perform his duties; another takes his place, leaving untended his own bridge or bridges.

Across the canal was a building and back of it the Albion Fire Department's pumper took on water from the canal. Then a couple of brown mud covered pickup trucks showed up. They were so muddy that neither the signs on the sides nor the original color of the trucks could be discerned. Two men then took hoses from the fire engine and proceeded to apply high pressure streams to the trucks, washing them off thoroughly so we could see that they were bright yellow with the words "MUD DOG" painted on them. Apparently they had been in some sort of contest that involved lots of mud.

The places to tie up at Albion are along an embankment, the western end of which has public access and is next to a small office building. The eastern hundred yards of the embankment adjoins a New York State Department of Transportation facility that is so fenced in that the crew of a vessel that moors there cannot walk out when the facility is closed (such as at night). We moored at the eastern part of the public-access portion of the embankment, but a large sailboat moored just west of us next to the State facility. When the crew found themselves imprisoned they asked us to more our barge farther east, and we did so, leaving them room to moor at the public-access part.

Dinner was at another family restaurant, the Harvest Basket, which much resembled the Brockport Diner. Afterward Shaw and Nick left to return to Worcester and Luigi, Dodge and I went back to the barge. Soon a pleasant, portly man of middle age who claimed to be a physician approached us and told us of a much better mooring place half a mile to the west where we would not be bothered by the noise of cars going over the bridge or the sirens of the fire department. We followed his advice and cast off and motored west, finding to our surprise that he was trotting along with us on the tow path. He waved goodbye as we approached an area where the Albion and Lockport fire departments were having some sort of drill with their fire engines, and where there was a public boat landing, but no mooring place. The bridge tender, who had driven there after he saw us leave our previous mooring place, called to us from the bank and told us that there was no other mooring place nearby and that we should go back to where we were. We did so, but tied up next to the state D.O.T. facility, as we had no reason to go ashore again that day. Later we learned that that same doctor had, in the past, wrought similar mischief on other boaters.

Wednesday morning we decided to refill our water tank, and I asked someone in authority in the D.O.T. facility if we could take water from a standpipe on the state land. He said yes, but we didn't have a hose, so could not make use of the offer. One of our suggestions on returning the barge was that a water hose be added to the equipment on board.

Having learned from each of several bridge tenders that the locks at Lockport would be closed down at 11:00 Tuesday evening, we decided not to go further west, and after we untied Wednesday morning, headed back east. Our departure was accelerated by the advice from the bridge tender that he had to go to Holley to operate the bridge for some canal traffic there, and would not be able to let us through the Albion bridges until his return unless we left promptly.

At Brockport the tender of the lift bridge said he had water available, and he also had a large diameter hose with which he filled our tank promptly. While the barge's bow was at the bridge tower for this operation, the wind and the slight current in the canal swung the stern around toward the bridge; I was able to keep it from crashing by using the boathook that came with the barge.

We stopped again in Brockport, this time for lunch at another family restaurant, called the Pantry, which had real fresh strawberry shortcake. After lunch we visited the bookstore and I bought a book on tree identification which I used to confirm my identification of the black locust trees, and which I then contributed to the barge's library.

By evening we reached Pittsford again and tied up near where we had previously been cast adrift; this time we used our padlocks and chain. Another dinner at the Mucky Duck was particularly good.

Thursday morning we motored on to Fairport where we tied up to the same dock as that from which we first boarded the Skaneateles. Luigi went ashore to make Xerox copies of pages of the very useful chartbook and guide that Captain Wiles had lent us. Lunch was on board, and then we proceeded east to Palmyra. The afternoon grew very hot and we grew uncomfortable by the time we tied up at an embankment near a bridge. There were high banks on either side of the canal, so we could not see what was past them without climbing, and climbing did not immediately appeal to us. At 4:00 we ascertained that there was a factory nearby when a long loud whistle blew, and at 4:30 a very long loud siren sounded. Eventually Luigi got enough energy to walk up to the road that passed over the bridge and discovered a supermarket a hundred yards away. She went there and came back with a half a watermelon which we ate while standing on the embankment wall and spitting the seeds into the Erie canal. We wondered if this might amount to polluting the canal, and entertained the thought of thousands of tourists spitting watermelon seeds until the Erie Canal was full of them.

Friday morning we noticed a great many noises of fish jumping. Luigi walked along the path next to the canal for a hundred yards or so and came upon a backwater where scores, if not hundreds, of large carp were celebrating the mating season. Often the fish would rise to the surface and partially emerge from the water, and sometimes wriggle into water so shallow that their backs were no longer covered. I speculated whether this activity involved fertilizing the eggs laid by the famale carp or eating them, or perhaps both.

In the latter part of the morning we took the barge back to Fairport and moored where we had been told to, across the canal and west a couple of blocks from where we had picked it up. No one was there to whom we might surrender possession of the Skaneateles so we decided to have lunch at the nearby restaurant, Packet's Landing Inn, and worry about it later. After ordering lunch (which included superb New England clam chowder) I called the Mid Lakes Navigation Company office in Skaneateles, and was told that Libby would probably be along shortly, and if not, to give the keys to someone on the crew of the cruise vessel Emita II that would be docking in time. About five minutes after I returned to our table Libby walked in and joined us for a glass of iced tea. Then we turned the keys over to her, picked up the car we had left nearby and drove to the Hilton hotel on the campus of R.I.T. where we spent the night.

Our plane was not scheduled to leave Rochester until 5:00 Saturday afternoon, and that morning the three of us drove to the village of Mumford which I had noticed on a map of the area. The village is not particularly scenic or otherwise memorable, and when we were approached by an elderly native who persisted in telling us more than we wanted to know about the recent history of the village and his part in it, we did not mention our last name or ask if there were any Mumfords left there. We did go to the graveyard and saw the stones of so many Campbells, MacDonalds, MacPhersons, McKays, McIntyres etc. that I concluded that more Scotsmen had died in Mumford than at Culloden. The Genesee Country Museum is near Mumford, and we drove out there, but found it consisted of a entire village of old buildings collected from various parts of the countryside, and it was too hot to spend much time admiring it, particularly at a cost of $7.50 per person.

Then we went back to the hotel, had lunch and dawdled in air conditioned comfort until it was time to leave and return to Chicago.